When to buy organic food

How to shop smarter and healthier

Published: March 17, 2014 05:30 PM

Organic food as a rule costs more than conventional food, but is it worth the extra money? "We want consumers to appreciate that by buying organic food, they are helping to support farming methods for plants and animals that are healthier for the earth's soil and water supply in the long run," said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center. Here's our take on which organic choices will provide the most immediate benefit and why.

Fruit and vegetables

Priority level: High.
To avoid long-term exposure to pesticide residues.

Rinsing conventional fruit and vegetables doesn't effectively reduce pesticide residues that are left behind. But organic produce isn't treated with synthetic fertilizers or most synthetic pesticides.


Priority level: Medium to high.

Why: To discourage the routine use of antibiotics and questionable feed.

Organic poultry is raised almost always without the routine use of antibiotics. The widespread use of those drugs in food animals is causing a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And organic birds can't be fed poultry litter (a mixture of droppings, spilled feed, and feathers) or arsenic drugs.

Consumer Reports' tests have found that organic birds are just as likely to harbor bacterial contamination as nonorganic poultry, but a smaller percentage of the bacteria tend to be antibiotic resistant.


Priority level: Medium to high.

Why: Nutritional benefits.

As with chicken, organic cattle aren't raised with routine antibiotics. But for optimal nutritional benefits, look for organic meat that's also labeled "American Grassfed Approved" or "USDA Process Verified grass-fed," which guarantees that the animal was raised on a diet of 99 percent grass and forage and had seasonal access to a pasture. Studies suggest that meat from such animals might provide more health benefits than meat from animals fattened on a conventional diet of grain.


Priority level: Medium to high.

Why: Nutritional benefits.

Research has found that organic milk contains about 60 percent more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than nonorganic versions, a benefit that also extends to cheese and yogurt. Organic dairy cows aren't treated with growth hormones and must eat an organic diet that doesn't contain animal byproducts.

Packaged food

Priority level: Low to medium.

Why: To avoid consumption of food additives and synthetic dyes.

At least 95 percent of ingredients in certified organic processed foods must themselves be organic. But a "made with organic" label means that at least 70 percent of the product's ingredients must be organic.

Organic packaged foods might be most important for children because the foods are not allowed to contain synthetic dyes, which have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Natural food colorings include annatto, beets, and turmeric. But there's little evidence that conventional packaged goods are a health hazard to adults—except perhaps to their waistlines. Remember, organic cookies are still cookies.


Priority level: Not applicable.

Why: Organic labels on fish and shellfish are meaningless because there are no government-approved organic standards for seafood.  

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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